The Class of 2020 has a story to tell.
In a spring that was abruptly upended by the COVID-19 pandemic, uncertainty dominated daily life for us all – in our work, our health, and certainly our education.
As the university transitioned to remote learning after Spring Break, many weren’t sure what to expect. But in true UNLV spirit, faculty and students pulled together to shift quickly – and successfully – to remote instruction.
While there may have been some bumps along the road, the Class of 2020 persevered, balancing the new stresses of daily life on their fight to the finish line. And though Spring 2020 Commencement won’t happen as scheduled on May 16, UNLV’s newest graduates have plenty to celebrate.
More than 3,100 students will join the ranks of UNLV alumni this spring, each one proving that when faced with adversity, Rebels find a way to make it happen.
The Class of 2020 hails from 36 states and 49 foreign countries, many are the first in their family to graduate from college, and well over half – 63 percent – are from ethnically diverse backgrounds. This year’s class ranges in age from 19 to 80, with an average age of 27. Since 1964, UNLV has awarded more than 146,000 degrees.
An enduring UNLV commencement tradition is for the president to honor a select group of outstanding graduates who exemplify the academic, research, and community impact of the graduating class. Though the 2020 Spring Commencement is postponed until a later date, the tradition continues.
This spring’s honorees include future foreign policy experts; scientists seeking solutions to devastating diseases; an accounting major with a national championship under her belt; an artist using her immense talent to counter stigma and discrimination; engineers tackling artificial intelligence and unlocking the potential of humanoid robots; and a public health professional exploring how to help individuals with HIV live healthy lives.
Three majors in four years, with a near-perfect GPA — that’s what Martha Amaya achieved in her time as a Rebel at UNLV.
Martha mastered political science, French, and criminal justice as a student at UNLV, earning a 3.98 GPA while also finding the time to spend two different semesters studying abroad in Pau, France, and to serve as a Running Start Congressional Fellow in Washington, D.C. in Fall 2019 – the first Nevadan to ever be selected for the congressional fellowship.
Her achievements don’t stop there. Martha was one of 29 students out of more than 600 selected to spend a summer as a Public Policy and International Affairs Fellow at Princeton University in 2019.
She worked with Ambassador James Gadsen on The Transatlantic Partnership focused on determining the best economic policies going forward for regional development banks. She is a research analyst with the State Department through the Virtual Student Federal Service Program and has analyzed French-language media regarding Haiti and current human trafficking and migration trends. She is a past Gilman Scholar with the U.S. Dept. of State. She was also one of just 30 students nationwide selected as a Charles B. Rangel Fellow. Martha has also earned numerous university scholarships, including the Earl and Hazel Wilson Scholarship, the Hixon-Lied Success Scholarship, the Gary Gray Memorial Scholarship and the Ken Bubb Memorial Scholarship.
She’s found the time to feed another one of her passions — theater — too, earning Best Actress Runner up at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Looking forward, Martha plans on working towards a career as a foreign service or international affairs officer and will be attending the Kennedy School at Harvard University in the fall.
Ph.D. in Computer Science
Carter Chiu's trajectory to graduation this spring with a 4.0 GPA and a Ph.D. in computer science has been marked by rare milestones.
Carter's foray into higher education began at the tender age of 16, buoyed by UNLV’s President’s Scholarship, a full scholarship offered to National Merit finalists. In his junior year, the high-achieving undergrad was invited to join computer science professor Justin Zhan's Big Data Hub -- jumpstarting a research career that drew collaborations from graduate and postdoctoral students, as well as the highly-regarded Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
His achievements and strong research background culminated in direct admission from a bachelor's degree into UNLV's computer science doctoral program -- an exceptional rarity that is only recommended to truly outstanding candidates. What's more, at age 19, he was admitted as the program's youngest-ever Ph.D. student and defended his dissertation at 22.
From there, the milestones kept coming.
Carter -- whose work has examined topics including algorithms and security surrounding social media accounts -- has published 15 articles in premier journals and conferences and has earned multiple university scholarships, including the Roy and Helen Kelsall Scholarship and the Konami Gaming Scholarship. Nominators say his Ph.D. dissertation made significant research contributions in the field of artificial intelligence and big data.
And he's helped others along the way. On campus, he was on the board of directors for the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers, and he mentors new members of UNLV's rapidly growing Big Data Hub. Off campus, Carter has devoted his summers as an instructor and research mentor for three national programs -- teaching over 50 kids and a dozen K-12 educators years-worth of programming in four languages and helping facilitate over a dozen high-quality research papers on topics ranging from deep learning to cybersecurity.
B.A. in Political Science (Honors)
To Akaisha Cook, public policy has the potential to either promote or hinder opportunities for a better life, particularly for those from underrepresented groups. Since coming to UNLV, she’s been on the former side of that philosophy, working to engage in countless opportunities to advance the lives of southern Nevadans, while also excelling in her studies and scholarship opportunities.
Akaisha came to UNLV in January 2015 as a first-generation college student, and has now realized her dream — becoming the first college graduate in her family. One nominator said it was her “upbringing and tenacious spirit” that brought her to this moment.
As a student at UNLV, Akaisha worked on local and presidential campaigns, and she served as a political science intern in the Nevada governor’s office during the 2019 legislative session. It was there that she introduced one of the governor’s key priorities. The bill created the Office for New Americans and is tasked with coordinating services for immigrants and refugees.
In addition to achieving a 3.5 GPA, she also accrued an impressive list of accomplishments and experiences.
Akaisha has been awarded multiple university and department scholarships, including scholarships to support a semester studying in China in 2017. She served as a Bennett Family mentor in the Honors College, a project coordinator for Girls Who Code, and as a coordinator to the Dawson Honors Bound program. In summer 2019, she was selected as a Charles B. Rangel Summer Enrichment Program Scholar, and she received the Philip J. Cohen Scholarship and the Mary Dougherty Honors Scholarship. This spring she was awarded the Thomas R. Pickering Graduate Foreign Affairs Fellowship, one of just 30 students nationwide. With it, she will be attending Georgetown University starting this fall with full funding and guaranteed employment as a Foreign Service Officer after graduation.
“In sum, Ms. Cook’s undergraduate career embodies the promise and potential of UNLV — a living example of how the hard-working sons and daughters of Southern Nevada, many from under-privileged backgrounds like Akaisha, make the most of the rich and diverse opportunities the campus has to offer to lift themselves to successes and achievements previously unimagined,” one nominator wrote.
Holly Anne Martin
Ph.D. in Biology
Holly Anne Martin is a teacher, mentor, and community servant, but above all, an advocate for science.
In 2015, Holly returned to UNLV to continue her education after earning a master’s degree from the university in 2010, and teaching for three years at Gillette College in Wyoming. She graduates as a Rebel once more this year with a Ph.D. in biology, and an impressive 3.87 GPA.
As a doctoral student at UNLV, Holly’s research brought a spotlight to bacterial genetics on campus, and her preliminary work on mutagenesis set a foundation for a new frontier in UNLV professor Eduardo Robleto’s lab, one that examines the role of a factor involved in DNA repair in infections caused by Staphylococcus aureus. The microbial pathogen causes 2 million hard-to-treat infections each year in the U.S., and burdens the country’s health system with a cost of $65 billion.
Holly’s research, therefore, has significant implications for human health.
She’s authored eight high-impact research papers on DNA repair and mutagenesis in Bacillus subtilis, a closely related cousin of Staphylococcus aureus. Since 2008, her work has also been recognized through 16 awards and prizes, including the 2019-2020 President’s UNLV Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship and the Wolzinger Family Research Scholarship.
In addition to excelling as a scientist, Holly served as the president of the UNLV Student Chapter of the American Society for Microbiology in 2017. In this role, she directed community outreach activities to promote the field of microbiology in the Las Vegas community, hosting the club’s first-ever career event to expose students to science careers outside of academia.
“I cannot think of any better science advocate for UNLV than Holly,” Robleto said. “She has been a proactive member of the institution and a driving force for the College of Sciences. She continues to impact the Las Vegas community through UNLV resources, and continually finds ways to help others.”
B.F.A in Art (Honors)
Desert Companion Magazine got it right when it named UNLV art student Zully Mejia to its list of “Ones to Watch” for bringing a new energy to Southern Nevada’s cultural landscape.
Zully – a painter and sculptor – has been an artist much of her life, and her captivating artistry investigates concepts of identity, womanhood, and femininity.
She has taken part in five solo and 11 group exhibitions, all while remaining heavily involved in undergraduate research. In 2018, Zully earned funding from UNLV’s Office of Undergraduate Research to study artwork that counters stigma and discrimination. She later went on to win first place in the university’s spring undergraduate research conference in the category of “Fine Arts, Liberal Arts, and Urban Affairs Presentations and Exhibits” and was asked to be a speaker at the 2019 Research Skills Academy.
An artist and a student of art history, Zully spent Fall 2018 abroad in Viterbo, Italy, studying art history, learning from renowned Italian artist Federico Paris, and teaching English at an international school. When she returned, she was moved by the impact of the trip and organized an art exhibition to raise funds for another College of Fine Arts student to study abroad.
As a Peruvian American and first-generation college student, Zully worked multiple jobs to pay for her education while also introducing youth in the community to art. She mentored middle school children about college and career options; she assisted with collections and exhibitions at UNLV’s Barrick Museum of Art; she served as an Honors College peer mentor; and she led new student orientations with the Office of Admissions. She also earned multiple university scholarships, including the Marjorie Francis Laird Scholarship and the Cynthia Bunker and Joy McClenahan Memorial Scholarship.
Zully’s art has earned acclaim locally and beyond, as she has exhibited her work internationally and was a semifinalist in the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. She was also a finalist for the British Consulate General’s Marshall Scholarship.
After graduating with an impressive 3.8 GPA, Zully will pursue an MFA in Fine Arts from Goldsmiths, University of London in 2021.
Ph.D. in Public Health
During his time at UNLV, John Olawepo found the balance between being an outstanding Ph.D. student, researcher, and instructor with the School of Public Health.
John has devoted his career to understanding and solving critical issues in the HIV care continuum.
Prior to joining UNLV, he received medical training in Nigeria and post-graduate public health training from London. His experiences around the world drove him to focus his doctoral research on global health, a field within public health that explores how health is interconnected worldwide.
For his dissertation, John studied obesity among people living with HIV who are receiving treatment, exploring ways to help this population live healthier lives. His interest in global health has led to collaboration with researchers around the world seeking to design a model for implementing global health programs in developing countries.
John has also been very active in community service. He has served as a mentor for numerous UNLV undergraduate students participating in UNLV Graduate College programs, and he has represented UNLV as a Graduate College Ambassador for two terms.
“John has been an inspiration to other graduate students through his hard work, dedication, and achievements,” his Ph.D. advisor, Professor Jennifer Pharr, stated. “All of these activities and accomplishments are a testament to his work ethic, collegiality, and enthusiasm for Public Health.”
John hopes to remain in academia and take up a position as an assistant professor.
M.S. in Biochemistry
Even before the world was thrown into a tailspin amid the COVID-19 pandemic, master's student Lara Turello was on the front lines of another health crisis.
After contemplating undergraduate work that focused on microbiology, Turello turned her attention in graduate school to C. diff, a pathogen that causes serious hospital-borne illness affecting nearly 500,000 Americans each year.
And she was a pioneer.
Working with Nevada Institute of Personalized Medicine Prof. Ernesto Abel-Santos, Lara focused on working with vegetative bacteria, a new frontier for the lab. She carved her own path -- teaching herself how to identify and troubleshoot various aspects, and developing all the techniques she required for her project. Nominators called her work "exciting" and said it's pointing scientists toward "a novel mechanism for antibiotic resistance that we had not envisioned before." In 2017, she was honored by Sen. Jacky Rosen with a Nevada Women in STEM award. She's also a past recipient of the Wolzinger Family Research Scholarship.
What's more, the state-of-the art research techniques she developed for her C. diff project have come in handy for her current work with COVID-19.
As stay-at-home orders paralyzed the nation, Lara juggled additional research on her completed C.diff experiments while enthusiastically volunteering to help prepare collection tubes for COVID-19 testing kits. Lara, along with other UNLV faculty and students, are currently preparing over 5,000 tubes per week to send to the Southern Nevada Health District.
That's not all: Lara has also volunteered to train University Medical Center personnel in the use of robotic pipetting to increase the output of COVID-19 testing.
It's no wonder that Lara, who's graduating this spring with a master's degree in biochemistry, is doing so with a perfect 4.0 GPA.
B.S in Electrical Engineering, minor in Computer Science (Honors)
As a researcher and mentor, Dylan Wallace’s impact at UNLV stretches far beyond that of a typical undergraduate.
A member of UNLV’s Honors College, Dylan graduates with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and minors in computer science and mathematics. For the past four years, he’s worked in UNLV’s acclaimed Drones and Autonomous Systems Laboratory conducting research on computer vision, walking, and virtual reality control for humanoid robots.
His work has taken him to Korea, where he served as a National Science Foundation-supported intern; and later to Washington D.C., where he researched interactions between humanoid robots and humans for the Naval Research Lab. Closer to home, Dylan has also put his skills to work with the Regional Transportation Commission in a project to improve traffic efficiency in Southern Nevada. He is the author or co-author of three peer-reviewed journal or conference papers, with two more under review.
In 2018, Dylan was part of a UNLV student team that took the top prize in a robotics world championship in China. He is currently serving as the team leader for UNLV's team in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE $10 million challenge.
Dylan is actively engaged with engineering student organizations at UNLV, promoting STEM education and mentoring middle and high school students through his roles as Engineering Ambassador, Vice Chair of the IEEE Student Chapter, and through UNLV’s Upward Bound Math and Science program.
As a testament to his exceptional work, in 2019 Dylan was awarded a Goldwater Scholarship, the nation’s premier award for STEM undergraduates. Earlier this year, he was one of just eight students throughout the Nevada System of Higher Education chosen as an NSHE Regents Scholar for his academic achievements, leadership ability, and service contributions throughout the state. He's also earned support through the Roy and Helen Kelsall Scholarship and the Joseph W. Sedlemeyer Scholarship.
Dylan, who graduates with an impressive 3.8 GPA, plans to earn a Ph.D. in engineering with a goal to become a university professor and research director. He will be starting a Ph.D. in Robotics at the University of Michigan in the Fall, working on research toward brain control of prostheses and exoskeletons through cortical brain machine interfaces.
Ingrid Zarate Albarran
B.S. in Business Administration (Accounting); Entrepreneurship Minor (Honors)
Ingrid Zarate Albarran is a first-generation college student who’s risen from a humble upbringing to become a leading accounting major with a focus on global entrepreneurship, and mentor to countless local youth.
Born and raised in a small Mexican village, Ingrid overcame significant personal challenges to earn a visa to study in the United States. She and her mother moved to the U.S. with nothing, and they worked tirelessly to build a successful life. Ingrid was named valedictorian of her high school and came to UNLV to study business.
An Honors College student, Ingrid has greatly impacted the Lee Business School for the better. In 2018, she was selected by the Lee Business School as a Lee Scholar for her academic achievement and engagement. She also earned the Bennett Family Honors Scholarship and was part of the Engelstad Scholars Program.
Then in the summer of 2019, Ingrid was on a student team that competed - and won - the National Institute of Management Accountants Student Case Competition. Months later, she founded the official UNLV student chapter of the organization. Under her leadership, the chapter has grown to 95 members and hosted over 30 events with major corporations like Ernst & Young and MGM Grand.
For the past three years, Ingrid has been volunteering at the Public Education Foundation, where she has dedicated nearly 400 hours of service in programs focused on family engagement, teacher exchange, and anti-bullying.
Amidst this, Ingrid has balanced at times, 22 credits, a part-time job, and being a part of CSUN's executive branch - all that while being a member of the Dean’s List with a 3.94 GPA.
Ingrid plans on continuing her education here at UNLV as she pursues a Master’s degree in Accounting. Once graduated, she will be starting as a full-time external auditor for multinational company Ernst & Young.